Do you recall the last time you set foot into the Dehiwala National Zoo? Some of us would nod in agreement, whilst others might simply shrug their shoulders. However, all of as toddlers, preschool kids or teenagers certainly have visited it, and it might have even been an eagerly awaited, promising visit. However, over time, technology has progressed, and life has advanced to a great extent but unfortunately humanity has also started seeing its downturn. What remains now at this one time beautiful premises would indeed leave you shocked and lost in thought if you happen to pay a nostalgic visit today.
The controversy surrounding the Dehiwala Zoo has been brewing for some time. The debates, disputes and discussions materializing over social media, campaigns and awareness programs all have but one objective in mind: to better life for the animals held in captivity.
In the 1970s and 1980s it became a pioneer in Asia of the ‘Open Zoo’ concept, replacing most of its cement cages with more exposed barricades attempting to create a habitat that was the closest possible thing to their natural habitats.
Despite these early advancements, the zoo authorities with conservatism at heart, have failed in the eyes of the general public. Recently, it has come to light that there is an increasing number of unoccupied cages, unexpected deaths of endangered species, and severe brutality towards the animals by zoo keepers.
Protests against these prevailing and pressing issues are being overlooked by the relevant authorities. Nevertheless, many notable wildlife foundations refuse to give up their efforts. This can be seen by the increasing number of petitions escalating via email, requesting us to show support by signing and forwarding them to our mailing lists. However, this battle of collecting 10,000 signatures or so by all these organizations to persuade the government to provide a better life for these animals continue to fall on deaf ears.
The appalling deaths of lions, elephants, and rhinoceros over the past few years have shed light on an unseen plight faced by most of these creatures. There are arguments to whether these deaths resulted due to pure negligence or simply natural causes. Government officials argue stating that death is part and parcel of each life inherited. However, environmentalists and pressure groups refuse to surrender to such reports.
Certain leaked stories from zoo keepers reveal how some caretakers take home fruits and vegetables which have been brought to feed the animals and how meat and fish disappear before it reaches the cages. It has also been stated that animals do not receive the proper required nutrition since their food portions have been drastically cut down. Thus, all these inhumane acts would eventually lead to a group of undernourished, sickly, and frail animals.
Furthermore, numerous reports have also been released by leading news sites such as The Guardian with regard to animals held in captivity facing higher stress levels, leading to shorter life spans.
Sadly, to our dismay more scandalous reports follow. We all recall the prestigious Commonwealth Head of Government Meeting (CHOGM), which was hosted by Sri Lanka in 2016. Many animals that had been taken for display from the Dehiwala Zoo to ‘Ape Gama’ in Battaramulla for this event have died due to human error and complete negligence. Cranes had been prevented from flying by clipping their wings and a deer has drowned in a nearby lake. It greatly depresses nature lovers and animal right advocates of Sri Lanka that such innocent animals have to suffer to satisfy the political needs of our country.
It is time that we rethink the concept of a conventional zoo. The Dehiwala Zoo is currently home to a large range of species and does have its positive aspects too. Benefits range from acting as a center for education, to being an important tool or platform for research. It is also an artificial breeding ground for various endangered species especially of the endemic kind. It also brings in a large pool of revenue to the National Zoological Gardens of Sri Lanka. Thus due to these economic and social benefits, some don’t see closing the zoo as a solution to this prevailing problem.
However, the new concept of ‘Safari Parks’ has become increasingly popular as it allows animals to experience a life that is closer to their natural habitats in a large, open area. Furthermore, it will not bring this lucrative income source to a standstill. The efforts of the government with this regard should be commended.
The Ridiyagama Safari Park being the first ever Safari Park to be opened in Sri Lanka marks this as a landmark event. Many strongly advocate that the animals held captive in the Dehiwala Zoo should at least be transferred to such a park where they can feed, breed and survive in a more natural, cement-and-bar free environment.
Managing and maintaining a zoo is no joke. It is a serious and complicated task, way more complicated than we could ever imagine. The right training and resources are required, along with the knowledge and awareness to control and run it in the proper manner. The Dehiwala Zoo falls far behind in most of these mandatory requirements and some serious upgrading is necessary. The question is, who is to take the responsibility? Who will take the initiative? Who is prepared to walk that extra mile for these suffering animals?
Do you believe that we could succeed in changing this stark reality faced by these animals?